Learning and Teaching the Basics  


The Swim Strokes and Water Polo

   Monte Nitzkowski

Water Polo provides a wonderful complement to the sport of swimming. As a former Olympic swimmer (200-meter butterfly) and swim coach, never have I subscribed to the theory of some swim coaches that Water Polo is detrimental to the development of competitive swimmers. On the contrary, Water Polo helps build swimming strength and endurance and improves quickness. It provides an excellent opportunity to stay in shape for competitive swimming while providing a much-needed break from the rigors and boredom which can accompany swim training. If I have a criticism of some swim coaches, it would be overtraining, taking the fun out of swimming and leading to physical and mental burnout of some athletes. Water Polo can provide a welcome relief from this situation and help to maintain an interest in competitive swimming for some athletes who otherwise might quit the sport. As far as "re-tuning" stroke technique after the Water Polo season, I have found that, when needed, this can be accomplished very quickly.

All four competitive swim strokes plus elements of the sidestroke and elementary backstroke have application to the playing of Water Polo. Let's take a look at these strokes and analyze their place and importance in the training of the Water Polo athlete.

BUTTERFLY: Of the four competitive strokes, the butterfly has the least application to Water Polo. It is used primarily for conditioning Water Polo players. When used for conditioning, the flutter kick generally is substituted for the dolphin kick, and the head is kept in an upright, out-of-the-water position. (Illustrations #1, #2.) This puts the legs deeper than normal and puts a lot of pressure on the arms. The body is pulled through the water with a chest-up, "snowplow" effect. The "head-up flutter kick-fly" is an excellent conditioner. However, care must be taken with players who have experienced arm and shoulder problems. They should substitute front-crawl swimming while teammates are conditioning with the butterfly.

The dolphin kick is used by players executing the 90 degree, "square out" release during the counterattack. Other than that, it has limited application to Water Polo training although it certainly can serve as a general conditioner.

Illustration 1 – Head up, flutter fly   Illustration 2 – Head up, flutter fly

BREASTSTROKE: Other than moving to the wall during a time out, the complete breaststroke is seldom used as a part of game play. However, elements of the stroke are key to the development of important Water Polo fundamentals. Therefore, breaststroke conditioning should be incorporated into the Water Polo training program. (Illustration #3.)

illustration 3 – Breaststroke

When shooting from the vertical position, the pattern of the breaststroke arm stroke is used with the non-shooting arm to provide body support and leverage for the shot. As an example, a right-handed shooter will extend the left hand and arm under water and follow the breaststroke arm pattern to provide balance while shooting.(Illustrations #4, #5)

Illustration 4 – Passing (three point stance).  Illustration 5 – Shooting (from the three point stance).

The breaststroke kick (frog-type kick) is the most important kick for all Water Polo play. The circle-fashion, rotating of the lower legs outside the knees and the loose and circular rotating ankles provide the base for the "eggbeater" kick. All Water Polo players must perfect the "eggbeater" kick if they are going to have success with the sport. (Illustrations #6, #7, #8)

Illustration 6 - Breaststroke Kick
(starting base for eggbeater).     
Illustration 7 - Eggbeater
Kick in position.

Illustration 8 - Eggbeater in vertical position

The frog kick also provides the base for the Lunge Block, an important defensive maneuver which will be discussed in a later chapter.

One can see the breaststroke has a number of direct correlations to playing Water Polo and must be practiced as a part of the training program.

SIDESTROKE: Of the non-competitive strokes, the sidestroke has the greatest application to Water Polo. The scissors kick provides the base for the "jump" or quick-start necessary for all Water Polo play. Quick starting ability allows players to move quickly for four or five meters in any direction and is the key to both offensive and defensive positioning. Players are constantly starting and stopping during a Water Polo game; therefore, the scissors (and frog) kicks must be taught, trained and conditioned.

And, since players start on different sides, the scissors kick must be perfected on both left and right sides. (Illustrations #9, #10.)

Illustration 9 - Scissor, jump start
kick, right hip down with board.
Illustration 10 - Scissor, jump start
kick, left hip down, no board.

A modified over arm sidestroke arm movement is used when "hooking" or "squaring out" for the ball. (Note: Both the hooking and squaring maneuvers are used to get away from opponents and to release for the ball. The square out is a ninety degree, right or left release for the ball, while the hooking maneuver resembles a fish hook in its configuration, with the player releasing to the side, then turning back for the ball. As both of these turns are common in Water Polo, the over arm sidestroke should receive some practice time.(Illustration #11.)

Illustration 11 - Over arm sidestroke position.

BACKSTROKE: The backstroke has great application to Water Polo. This is particularly true when players are counterattacking. In the counterattack, players completely free of their defenders should roll to their backs and establish eye contact with the Goalkeeper who, ninety percent of the time, will be fielding the ball.

Backstroking in Water Polo requires a high head position which forces the legs deeper in the flutter kick. The arm stroke must be shortened, with the arms rotating at a high rate of speed. (Illustration #12.)

Illustration 12 – Backstroke positions for Water Polo

Occasionally, when players roll to      their backs to make a pass over a defender, they will employ a horizontal and inverted "eggbeater" kick. (Illustrations #13, #14.) This is similar to the elementary backstroke swimming position.

All Water Polo players need to practice going from their stomachs (front crawl) to their backs (backstroke) and back to the stomach again. This maneuver occurs often in Water Polo and needs to be included in conditioning drills.

Illustration 13 - Elementary
backstroke, eggbeater kick position.
Illustration 14 - Elementary
back position to receive pass.

FRONT CRAWL: As one might expect, the front crawl is the most important stroke for Water Polo. Players constantly shift from the vertical to the horizontal position and, when moving horizontally, they most often use the front crawl stroke.

The front crawl stroke in Water Polo is similar to the stroke used in ocean swimming and body surfing, where the head is held high so players can look and swim at the same time. All Water Polo players must know what is happening at every moment of the game—location of the ball, position of teammates, position of defenders and the referee's whistle and flag calls. All this can be accomplished only when the head is above water. Knowing all that information allows the player to anticipate all situations and to be moving quickly into proper offensive or defensive position.

Along with carrying the head high, the shoulders must be slightly raised, back arched, and greater knee bend applied to a deeper flutter kick. This resembles an exaggerated sprinter's body position. The arm stroke is shortened to give greater quickness for short distances. The key to successful front crawl swimming for the sport of Water Polo is being able to cover four or five meters very quickly, change directions (forty-five, ninety, and one-hundred-and-eighty degree turns) and still be able to swiftly cover twenty-five meters of continuous swimming in the counterattack. (Illustration #15.)

Illustration 15 - Front crawl
swim position for Water Polo.

The head-and shoulder-high position is a must for all the above mentioned considerations plus it is the key for controlling the ball while dribbling. (Illustration #16.) In Water Polo, the ball is advanced either by passing or
dribbling. All players must be adept at both of these skills.

Illustration 16 - Front crawl,
dribbling position.

All the above mentioned swimming strokes are extremely important to the development of Water Polo players. They need to be included in both the conditioning and skill development phases of every Water Polo program.